A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 10, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 2:13-18 and “Home” by Warsan Shire
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

What was it that first drew your attention to the Syrian refugee crisis? For some of you, I suspect it was news reports about ISIS and the need for people to flee. For others, perhaps it was the numbers. Syria had a population of about 22 million.[1] Suddenly, over 4 million of them left as refugees. 18% of the population. That would be like everybody in the choir except the basses suddenly leaving our worship service. In addition, 7.6 million are, what the United Nations High Commission on Refugees calls, “internally displaced persons.” That’s over half the Syrian population fleeing within the country or leaving the country all together. Over half.[2]

For others, it was probably the September publication of this photograph[3] or one like it.

syrian-boy-drowns-650-afp_650x400_51441283742            These news reports and images moved us to feel compassion.

Then the November mass murders in Paris occurred. Syrian refugees were quickly blamed, then ISIS infiltrators posing as Syrian refugees. Even though it turns out that the Paris attackers were almost certainly European Union nationals,[4] much of our nation responded with fear. Then Christmas happened, and American news media got lost in the presidential elections.

I heard there was more news about the refugees to be paying attention to, so I did some searching this week. I actually had to go to a British news site to learn about yet more drownings of refugees trying to reach Greece.

“More than 30 migrants including three children have drowned after their boat capsized in rough water off the Turkish coast.

“They had been trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos, Turkish authorities said.

“The first of the bodies began to wash up on the beach at around 5am along the coast of Ayvalik, a Turkish town directly opposite Lesbos.

“Twelve other people were rescued at the site as the Turkish coastguard searched for survivors who had tried to make the crossing.”[5]

From a distance, we get to be obsessive about presidential politics. From a distance, we get to lose track of what is happening halfway around the globe as we celebrate Christmas. That doesn’t mean that what’s happening halfway around the globe stops happening.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love celebrating Christmas. Given my profession, it’s plenty stressful, but I love it. I love the anticipation, the drama of Advent pulling us into a time between times, the hope proclaimed yet unfulfilled. I love the songs of yearning, traditional and contemporary like “What Child Is This?” and “Mary, Did You Know?” I love the story – I suppose that should be plural, since Matthew’s and Luke’s stories are so different – I love the stories. And, I love the Christian claim mysterious as it is, that says, somehow in this birth, somehow in this child, God is with us.

Author Jim Wallis writes, “It’s not just that God came, but how God came.” He points to Luke’s story: “It wasn’t accidental that the savior of the world was born to a poor peasant woman in an occupied country in an animal stall because they were literally homeless at the time of his birth.” And he points to Matthew’s story: “And soon Jesus and his family were made refugees and had to flee their country because the most powerful political ruler around the Christ child felt very threatened by his coming.

“At least King Herod got the fact that his political power would indeed be undermined by the coming of Jesus and the new kingdom [Jesus] would bring.…

“Herod was the king assigned by Rome to rule over the Jews. And when he heard about the birth of Jesus he was ‘frightened’ or ‘disturbed’ or ‘worried’ or ‘troubled’ or ‘terrified’ as different gospel translations report.

“Why? Because the closest political ruler to Jesus at the time of his birth believed Jesus could become a threat to his power. Herod asked all the people who might know, ‘Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?’ The king then called the now famous wise men, who were traveling from the East to see the child, in for a meeting with him at the palace where he tried to manipulate them to come back and tell him where they had found the child, ‘so that I may also go and pay him homage.’

“Most of the stories about the three wise men focus on the gifts they presented to the Christ child when they ultimately found him of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Our re-telling the story often doesn’t focus so much on the political threat Jesus posed to political power when he was born. And we talk even less about what happened when the wise men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod after they found Jesus. In another dream, [the one we heard today,] Joseph was told to quickly leave the country with his new family, into Egypt where they would stay until King Herod died. ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ So Jesus became a refugee fleeing political power.…


“Flight to Egypt-3” by Tamara Harutyunyan

“To protect himself, Herod killed all the baby boys, hoping to kill Jesus, in what our tradition calls the ‘Massacre of the Innocents,’ which is too often how political power reacts when it is threatened. Innocents are often threatened by political power as are many today in the most recent rhetoric of our own political candidates in their attacks on immigrants, refugees, people of other religions, all the ‘others’ who are not like ‘us’ and even the children who are said to threaten us.”[6]

Yesterday, we screened the documentary abUSed. The film documents a 2008 raid on Agriprocessors, at the time, the nation’s largest kosher meat packing plant, by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It shows how ICE and the office of the Attorney General treated undocumented workers like animals, violated their rights, ripped apart families, and devastated a rural community.

Postville, Iowa, was a town of about 2000. When ICE raided the plant, they arrested 290 Guatemalans, 93 Mexicans, 2 Israelis, and 4 Ukrainians. Eighteen were juveniles.[7] That’s 389 arrests, 20% of the population. And they were arrested not just for being in the country and working without proper documentation, but for felonies like document fraud charges.


Mass deportations from the Postville raid.

300 were convicted in four days, mostly by coercing plea bargains. “Neither the owner, Aaron Rubashkin, nor his sons Sholom and Heshy Rubashkin, who were in charge of the management of Agriprocessors, were convicted of immigration and labor law violations.”[8]

If we really want to stop undocumented people from coming to the United States, the simplest thing to do is prosecute the people who hire them. If American businesses won’t hire undocumented workers, they won’t come here looking for work. And that really is the reason these people came to Postville. They wanted to work. They wanted to earn money so they could feed their families. That’s why they came to the United States.

I find it interesting that NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, brought down all sorts of barriers to free trade – except if the only thing you have to trade is your labor. That you cannot move across the borders freely.

Of course, that was then, 2008. This is now. And this past week, the Obama administration has begun “a nationwide operation to deport a new wave of illegal immigrants.”[9]

imrs.phpThe Washington Post reports, “The raids were the first in a broad operation by the Obama administration that is targeting hundreds of families for deportation who have crossed the southern U.S. border illegally since the start of last year. The operation … is the first large-scale effort to deport families fleeing violence in Central America, authorities said.”[10]

That’s right: the families we are arresting and deporting are here not just to earn a living. They are here to escape violence. And we are sending them back to that violence.

“no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run from the border
when you see the whole city running as well.”[11]

Throughout Advent and Christmas and even into this first Sunday after Epiphany, our theme has been “Journey.” Members and friends of the church were invited to reflect on their families’ journeys in art, the art you see hanging around the sanctuary. Through Advent, we focused on the journeys of important characters in the first chapters of Luke’s gospel.

Last week and this, we’ve turned to Matthew’s gospel and the journey of the Magi by starlight and the journey of the Holy Family into exile. And that is where we leave them, in exile fleeing violence, just like so many others around the world today, as this series concludes.

For those of us who are lucky enough not to be living in exile, we are reminded that the Holy Family may well be living among us or seeking refuge among us because the principalities and powers are still seeking to snuff out the life of the one whose birth reminds us that God is with us in profound ways.

[1] “Population, total,” The World Bank, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL (accessed 9 January 2016).

[2] “Syrian Arab Republic,” UNHCR, http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49e486a76.html (accessed 9 January 2016).

[3] See, for instance, http://www.ndtv.com/world-news/my-children-slipped-through-my-hands-father-of-drowned-syrian-boy-1214048.

[4] Ishaan Tharoor, “Were Syrian refugees involved in the Paris attacks? What we know and don’t know,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/11/17/were-syrian-refugees-involved-in-the-paris-attacks-what-we-know-and-dont-know/ (posted 17 November 2015; accessed 9 January 2016).

[5] Eirini Lemos, “Dozens of migrants including three children drown trying to reach Greek island of Lesbos,” The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/turkey/12082819/Dozens-of-migrants-including-three-children-drown-trying-to-reach-Greek-island-of-Lesbos.html (posted 5 January 2016; accessed 9 January 2016).

[6] Jim Wallis, “Why Jesus Was, and Is, a Political Threat,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/articles/why-jesus-was-and-political-threat (posted 23 December 2015; accessed 1 January 2016).

[7] “Postville Raid,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postville_Raid (accessed 9 January 2016).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Lisa Rein, “U.S. authorities begin raids, taking 121 illegal immigrants into custody over the weekend,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/federal-eye/wp/2016/01/04/u-s-authorities-begin-raids-taking-121-illegal-immigrants-into-custody-over-the-weekend/ (posted 4 January 2016, accessed 9 January 2015).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Warsan Shire, from her poem “Home,” published, probably among other places, here http://seekershub.org/blog/2015/09/home-warsan-shire/ (accessed 5 January 2015).